Employment Law Daily Reliance on letter from employee’s wife questioning his mental stability not disability bias
Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Reliance on letter from employee’s wife questioning his mental stability not disability bias

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

Prevented from returning to work after a depression-related leave of absence, a postal service worker failed to show his employer’s stated reason for its action—concern about his safety based on a letter from his wife questioning his stability—was unlawful disability discrimination. Granting summary judgment against his Rehab Act claim, the court observed that while the employee might question the postal service’s decision to elevate his wife’s letter above a letter from his psychologist clearing him to return to work without restriction, the question was not whether the decision was wise or correct but rather whether it was discriminatory (Mitchell v. U.S. Postal Service, October 4, 2017, Michelson, L.).

The employee filed an EEO complaint in February 2009 alleging discriminatory treatment because of his depression. Later that year, he took a leave of absence due to his depression. In June 2010, his wife sent a letter to a USPS vice president explaining the employee’s mental instability and stating that they would be going public if the EEOC dispute was not resolved. The letter, however, was returned, marked “return to sender.”

No restrictions or mentally unstable? The next day, the employee attempted to return to work but was told he needed medical clearance. On August 2, he saw his psychologist who wrote a note stating that the employee was “able to fully return to work with no restrictions.” The employee then presented the note to his supervisor. Around that same time, however, the employee re-sent his wife’s letter, in which she wrote “My fear is that my husband will suffer some type of Mental or Physical breakdown if he returns to work right now, simply because your managers are not going to change how they do things,” and that his mental condition “for which there is no cure … makes him mentally unstable at all times. I hope I don’t have to explain to you why you should not allow a mentally unstable individual to continue working in an environment he/she deems hostile.”

On August 11, the USPS Threat Assessment Team (TAT) met to discuss the letter and decided they needed medical documentation to substantiate that the employee could return without causing harm to himself or others. Although the employee was informed that he needed to have his doctor address his wife’s letter in writing or sign a release permitting USPS to contact his psychologist, he refused and left work. The employee claimed his psychologist wrote three more letters clearing him to return, but USPS denied receiving them.

Terminated. The employee then filed a second EEO complaint asserting that the decision to reject his medical clearance and not allow him to return to work until his doctor addressed his wife’s concerns was unlawful discrimination based on his disability of stress and depression. In June 2013, he was terminated based on his long leave of absence.

Safety concern. Assuming without deciding that the employee established a prima facie case of disability discrimination, the court turned to USPS’s nondiscriminatory reason for placing him on leave—it was concerned about his personal safety based on his wife’s letter and the fact that he sent the letter gave it additional reason for concern. Further, the court acknowledged the possible relationship between USPS’s safety concern and the employee’s claimed mental disability of depression, noting that USPS officials mentioned his “mental condition” in discussing their concern about his safety if he returned to work.

Future risk. But this did not render the asserted basis of their action discriminatory, said the court, noting that under a 2008 EEOC Guidance to the ADA, an employer can take an adverse action against a disabled individual for disability-related conduct if the conduct is job-related or concerns a business necessity, the court explained. And while USPS’s concern did not stem from the employee’s past conduct, but from possible future conduct, this did not alter the analysis because the wife’s letter gave USPS a legitimate basis for believing that he could be a risk to himself or others in the future. Nor was it clear, said the court, that the instability and safety concern was a manifestation of his disability.

Pretext. As to the employee’s assertion that USPS’s concern over workplace safety was not the true motivation for its actions because he provided it with medical records and several letters from his doctor stating he was not a threat, the parties disputed whether USPS received all of the letters. But even if a reasonable jury were to find that USPS received all of the psychologist’s notes, it could still not reach the conclusion that USPS’s request for a direct response to the wife’s letter was a pretext for discrimination.

Here, the court pointed out that upon receipt of the letter, the TAT met and expressed concern about the employee being dangerous to himself and soon thereafter, USPS met with him and specifically raised his wife’s letter. And because that letter explicitly stated that the employee’s doctors were unaware of how bad his condition was, USPS told him they wanted his doctor to directly respond to his wife’s concerns. But none of the psychologist’s letters did so. Rather, they simply provided a perfunctory statement that the employee was able to return to work without restrictions. So even if USPS received all of the psychologist’s notes, they did not provide the information it expressly asked for and did not demonstrate that it no longer sincerely believed he was a potential danger. Because the employee did not produce any evidence from which a jury could reasonably doubt USPS’s explanation that it was sincerely motivated by safety concerns, it was entitled to summary judgment on this claim.

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